Communicator (communicator) wrote,

Gould on the limits of science

I was saying I really like Stephen Jay Gould, but I have read something in that book that I disagree with. I haven't got it with me so I can't quote exactly. Gould talks about the Vatican ruling that accepted Evolution as the source of man's physical body* but god at some unspecified point inserted a soul into the corporeal form, and this event is within the realm of theology. Gould says 'it's not worth arguing about'. He says nobody can see a soul, its absence or presence makes no difference to anything. So why argue about it? Let the Vatican demarcate 'souls' for its domain, it doesn't hurt anyone else.

I disagree with Gould very strongly on this, for two reasons.

Many years ago, before blogging, I hung out in various philosophical and political mailing lists. I was startled by one Christian thread which concluded that human clones (not that any exist yet) 'do not have souls'. I posted a quite angry email to the list saying clones are just people with the same DNA, like identical twins, and the subject was dropped. However, the exchange made me realise that because souls can't be seen or felt, it is open to any group of people to decide that another group of people don't have souls - and there's nothing you can do to refute it. In the middle ages theological discussions took place as to whether women have souls - now, they always decided we did, but the subject is always open for another round of opinion.

So that's the first reason I think letting religious people decide about 'souls' without challenge is a bad idea: because they can decide some humans don't have souls. Or it could be decided about other sentient species such as dolphins or aliens or apes. The scope for cruelty is limitless.

The other reason is less theoretical. As well as deciding some people don't have souls, religions can decide that some non-people do have souls. There's been a very good (I mean of course bad) example in the news this week. A little 9 year old girl in Brazil was raped by her father and became pregnant. To make things even more terrible she was pregnant with twins. Her tiny body could not cope with this, and she received medical treatment for the rape, including termination of pregnancy. Now the Vatican have excommunicated the the girl's mother who took her to the hospital, not the father who raped her.

This is because it has been decided that the fertilised eggs inside the girl have souls, from the moment of the rape, and their survival takes precedence over the little girl's mental and physical health. Thus the fiction of a 'soul' can be used to excuse dreadful cruelty.

So, two reasons I think why it is wrong to say that we can leave discussion of souls to the church, and content ourselves to talk about bodies. Because beliefs about souls can justify cruelty.

*(I say 'man' because the Vatican is focussed on 'man' rather than humans)
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